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Absurdity of Life Title: Absurdity of Life

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The Theater of the Absurd grew as a response to what critics saw as the collapse of moral, religious, political, and social structures in the twentieth century. The primary aim of its plays was to point out the absurdity of life. Though it incorporated a diverse group of playwrights, each with his or her own set of beliefs, many influenced by the dadaist and surrealist movements, in general, they agree that human life and endeavor had become so essentially illogical, and language such an inadequate form of communication, that the only refuge was laughter. In absurdist plays, all truth becomes relative, and life is reduced to an illusion, to highlight the absurdity and hopelessness of the world. Martin Esslin defines the movement as striving to “express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.” His explanation continues, “The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being” ( Theatre of the Absurd , 6), which separates this theater movement from existentialism, just as experience is different from theory.


Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is generally considered to be at the forefront of the absurdist movement. Beckett conveys a sense of the hopelessness and absurdity of modern life in his depiction of two men passing time, as they vainly wait for the title character to arrive. The play is not a story about life, but rather the condition of living, being itself a metaphor for what Beckett saw as the mental state of twentieth century life. The apparent simplicity of the play is deceptive, for the text can be read at multiple levels and is densely filled with visual and linguistic symbolism, drawing on Freudian psychology, Christian mythology, and various philosophical outlooks. Beckett calls the play    a “tragicomedy,” through which he wants to suggest that since life is so tragic and impossible to comprehend, laughter might be the only sane response to it.


Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano has even greater elements of burlesque humor than Beckett, as Ionesco exposes the inanities within commonplace behavior and thought. The “well-made play” is parodied as being conventionally predictable and innately stereotypical in character and plot. Feeling that the absurdity of modern existence cannot be communicated intellectually, Ionesco makes his audience sense and feel it through the experience of a play that mocks those who believe in causality, and exposes the meaninglessness and irrationality of people’s lives and relationships in its presentation of characters whose inability to communicate leads them to dehumanize themselves and others. Although the experimental nature of his plays allies him to the surrealists, his work is not fully surreal in that it is never entirely divorced from reality. Likewise, his allegiance to existentialism is only partial, in that he would agree with Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre that modern existence is meaningless, irrational, and absurd, but, unlike them, does not feel that such notions can be communicated through traditional literary modes.


The Birthday Party is less overtly comedic than Beckett or Ionesco, despite some entertaining wordplay. A sense of menace and violence fills Pinter’s play and remains unrelieved by the close. Pinter underlines this with tense, quick-fire sequences of dialogue, though we learn as much from the silences and gestures as from what characters say. Pinter’s dialogue ensures that we recognize how inadequate a form of communication language has become for these people, as they cannot make themselves understood to one another on even the simplest level. The idea that life is an illusion is conveyed by the fact that we are never allowed to be sure who any of the characters are, how they relate to each other, what it is they may have done, or what will happen to them.


In Waiting For Godot , Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo, as they call each other) are two tramps waiting for a local landowner, Godot, to meet with them, and possibly change their lives. They pass the time conversing, arguing, and dreaming, diverted by two visits, one in each act, from Pozzo and Lucky, a sadistic master and submissive slave, whose relationship is inextricably and unpleasantly connected. A boy enters near the close of each act to announce that Godot will not come that day, and the tramps continue to wait.


The play challenged most theatrical expectations of its time with its illogical plot, purposeless action, virtually nonexistent set, and repetitive language, which frequently contradicts the action. Estragon complains, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes” (41), but this is untrue, for although there is minimal plot and little character development, the play is never static; rather, it is filled with conflicts, mock conflicts, verbal exercises, comic routines, and mishaps. The play’s humor, often bawdy, comes from farcical stage action, wordplay, and defeated expectancy (where we are tricked into expecting one   thing and given another). Its seriousness is conveyed by extended philosophical monologues, and the layered symbolism of all we see and hear. Characters exchange hats as easily as they exchange roles, depicting the fluidity of identity, and boots fail to fit, just as lifestyles or religions might. A bare tree takes on varying significance as the denatured tree of life, the site of a crucifixion that forever changed the world, or, as it grows leaves, the possibility of progress.


Survival creates the action of the play, as we witness how humanity survives the empty existence Beckett sees as life. Vladimir and Estragon tell stories, contemplate suicide, eat carrots and radishes, pull their boots on and off, and somehow keep going. “We always find something,” Estragon tells Vladimir, “to give us the impression we exist” (69). These two, representative of humankind in general, continue to sustain themselves through their endless inventiveness and refusal to finally despair, though they remain forever on a knife edge between despair and hope. They have different temperaments, concerns, strengths, and weaknesses, yet they complement each other to form a whole that holds them together despite the occasional argument.


Pozzo and Lucky also complement each other, but, in contrast to the tramps, they are bound together by a rope rather than the sustaining bond of friendship between Vladimir and Estragon, and their relationship is exploitative and destructive, with Lucky dancing and spouting empty rhetoric at Pozzo’s tyrannical whim. In act 1 Lucky carries Pozzo’s luggage, but also the whip with which he allows his master to beat him, suggesting that Lucky is complicit in his own subjugation. Pozzo may represent the ruthless capitalist against Lucky’s hardworking, but ineffectual proletariat.


Pozzo initially seems rich and powerful, but reappears in act 2 in severely reduced circumstances, having lost much of his earlier self-certainty along with his sight. He represents those people who, with forced optimism, blind themselves to the illusory nature of both power and permanence in this world. When by act 2 Lucky has been struck dumb and Pozzo blind, it becomes symbolic of their moral and emotional limitations. Pozzo has throughout debunked faith, which blinds him to possibility, suggesting the reduction of life without Christian principle. While Vladimir and Estragon show the potential in working together when their combined efforts allow Pozzo to rise, Pozzo and Lucky are unable to learn this lesson, doomed to live in unhappy inequality.


The play suggests that life is a process of interminable waiting, bracketed by birth and death. Whether Godot is seen as God with a diminutive suffix, or an oblique reference to a character named Godeau from Honoré de Balzac’s comedy Le Faisseur , who strongly influences the action but never appears on stage, the name signifies that thing for which we wait. Ascertaining Godot’s identity runs contrary to the play’s intention to portray the uncertainty of life by repeatedly defeating our expectation of discovering who he is. What may be more important is the probability that Godot’s arrival would be a disappointment if it ever occurred, for it is the waiting that defines life. Since the only certainties are birth and death, it is up to the individual to make the best of what happens in between. The more people communicate with others, the better life will be, but the problem is that people, by nature, are poor communicators. Beckett’s language is filled with linguistic tricks to convey the difficulties of communication. His characters find it impossible to say exactly what they mean, because there is no real meaning, and they speak in repetitious cycles, non sequiturs, and incomplete sentences that reflect this.


Beckett’s work idiosyncratically combines elements of two contrasting philosophies: “determinism,” which insists that human action is not free but determined by external forces acting on the will, and “existentialism,” which insists that the individual is free and a responsible agent who determines his or her own development. The result is a total confusion, which is what Beckett sees as the reality of life. The search for salvation has become increasingly problematic in a modern world that questions even the concept of salvation. In Lucky and Pozzo this leads to despair, but Vladimir and Estragon maintain hope, which is sufficient to sustain them. Thus, the play is not hopeless: Vladimir and Estragon’s lives, despite their apparent meaninglessness, become meaningful to them in their persistence in the face of hopelessness and refusal to be destroyed.


As a typical absurdist drama, there is little plot to The Bald Soprano; the action contradicts the words just as the words continuously contradict the action, so we are never sure of anything. We meet the Smiths, who have a number of confusing conversations, and are joined by a possibly married couple, the Martins, for dinner. All four continue in increasingly nonsensical debates, momentarily interrupted by a fire chief in search of a fire, and end in a hostile standoff, before the Martins assume the identities of the Smiths and the play begins again from where it started.


Despite its “slice of life” setting—the husband smokes a pipe and reads the paper while his wife darns socks in their cozy home— The Bald Soprano disrupts this apparent normalcy by having a clock strike seventeen. This temporal confusion continues throughout the play, but becomes the least of our worries, as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the play’s stereotypical middle-class couple, embark upon a disconcerting dialogue of information they must already know, such as what they had for dinner and descriptions of their children. Ionesco parodies a middle class whose lives have become spiritually and intellectually empty. The Smiths’s speech has ossified into a patois of ready-made expressions and platitudes devoid of any real meaning and is a reflection of their entire existence, which has been dehumanized by its senseless banality and inflexibility. This disintegration of language is one of the play’s central themes. As the two make absurd declarations regarding the nature of grocers, yogurt, and doctors, we see how their mechanical language has taken them close to the realm of idiocy. By the close of the play their constantly frustrated efforts to communicate with one another are reduced to subhuman sounds, as both couples are forced to recognize their inability to articulate anything that makes sense.


 

A confusion regarding reality permeates the entire play, no more evident than in the Smiths’s discussion of the obituary of Bobby Watson, supposedly dead for two years. Their speech becomes filled with contradictions and patently bizarre information, such as declarations that each member of the potentially deceased’s family was named Bobby Watson. Lying behind this is Ionesco’s fear of human interchangeability, the inevitable conclusion of a group of people no longer differentiated by individuality in their efforts to assimilate into society. When people refuse to think for themselves, they can no longer be themselves. This means they can become anyone, but that is tantamount to being no one—and so the Smiths and the Martins become indistinct and interchangeable by the play’s end, just as the Watson family became.


Mounting evidence of this lack of individuality comes with the entrance of the Martins, who, despite initially seeming not to know each other, come to a conclusion that they are husband and wife, until interrupted by Mary, the maid, who claims to be Sherlock Holmes, and suggests that they are mistaken. The nonexistence of an inner life in these characters is what prevents the forging of any meaningful relationships. Their inability to know for sure who they are and what their relationship might be is tragic. Unable to truly communicate, people become condemned to isolation; assertions of love and marriage are as empty as their linguistic attempts to connect. The characters’ relationships are as nonsensical as their conversations, which insist that acts such as a man bending down to tie his shoelaces or reading a newspaper are extraordinary, but view as ordinary the most fantastic stories told to them by the fire chief.


In his belief that life is intrinsically nonsensical, Ionesco also ridicules what he sees as a misleading faith in causality. After the doorbell rings three times, but no one is there, Mrs. Smith ridiculously reasons, “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there” (23). When causality cannot even make sense of daily events, it should surely be abandoned when exploring the more important problems and mysteries of life. This speaks to the heart of absurdist belief—that reason, logic, and rational principles of discourse are inadequate when it comes to looking at and certainly trying to understand the world in which we live. The fourth time the bell rings, the fire chief enters, looking for a fire that began three days earlier yet is timed to start in “three-quarters of an hour and sixteen minutes” (37). Such absurdity continuously obfuscates rather than enlightens and the relationships and reactions become as unpredictable as they are ridiculous. The fire chief stays to tell complex and absurd tales, while Mary, who we learn has fought fires in the past, recites a repetitive poem about fire until she is pushed offstage. But after the fire chief departs, the conversation becomes even more bizarre, filled with gratuitous truisms about the nature of their environment; senseless assertions about merits of varied, unconnected objects and actions; and surrealistic proverbs, including “Take a circle, caress it, and it will turn vicious” (38). Initially naturalistic in utterance, the dialogue becomes increasingly aggressive and all four end up screaming and shaking their fists at each other until they run out of words and all they can do is grunt at one another as the stage grows dark, before it returns to its opening dialogue, only with the Martins replacing the Smiths on stage.


The Bald Soprano is not a negative play, despite its parody and ridicule of the middle class. Ionesco does not see the future as hopeless, but uses his writing to shock that middle class out of what he saw as its dangerous and complacent beliefs in rationality, logic, and traditional ideas of causality and reality. He saw these as reducing rather than expanding our humanity, and called for a more imaginative existence that would better complement the wonderful absurdity he saw as life.


In The Birthday Party , Meg and Petey run a spurious boarding house, at which Stanley, an unemployed pianist, has lodged for the past year, perhaps in hiding. To his concern, Goldberg and McCann, two imposing men, come to stay, and grow increasingly threatening toward Stanley, who may or may not be hiding from criminals, who may or may not be these two men. The characters throw Stanley a birthday party, with games like blindman’s buff, casting an incongruous air of normalcy over the violence that takes place. Stanley has a mental breakdown, attacks Meg and their neighbor Lulu, and, the next day, is taken away by the mysterious visitors, as Meg and Petey settle back into their routine as if nothing has happened.


Pinter’s characters habitually lie and disguise their true intentions, while attempting to assert themselves over others. However, no one is able to achieve the complete domination each craves, indicating that life is uncertain even for people like Goldberg and McCann. Everyone’s uncertainty is emphasized by the ominous pauses that fill their speech. Words are constantly deployed to have double meanings, such as when Lulu tells Goldberg he is “empty,” referring to both his glass and his moral state. One can only half-guess at the significance of most speeches or actions. This vagueness draws audiences into the play, forcing them to explore its suggestions and share its encounters alongside the actors. Pinter’s repetitive, short sentences reflect natural conversation, showing how mundane lives progress in their little routines—a mundanity that becomes safer and more attractive next to the violence that results when those routines are disrupted.


McCann and Goldberg create a mounting tension, as their covert threats become more open, beginning with verbal violence—they accuse Stanley of every possible crime—and building to physical violence. Their quick-fire speech echoes that of Vaudeville routines, which only makes their words more absurdly threatening. At one point Goldberg quite seriously asks Stanley why the chicken crossed the road. Pinter does not use humor to alleviate tension, but to emphasize the unreality of the situation. Against this, Stanley loses his capacity for speech and is silent for the rest of the play. The final act seems anticlimactic, with Meg apparently unaware of the violence around her, Petey  safely staying on the sidelines, and Lulu the only one declaring outrage, although the possibility that she spent the night with Goldberg deflates this.


The play’s unsettling vision of paranoia begins when we understand that Stanley has been hiding for a year, waiting for someone to arrive to punish him. Why, we are never certain, just as we never learn the cause of his estrangement from his parents. That his offenses are never clearly stated carries the suggestion they are so terrible as to be unspeakable. This is the end of the line, and he has nowhere left to hide, which is why he cannot run from McCann and Goldberg. It is possible he hides not from criminals but from his own guilt, and just projects his fears onto these visitors. The vagueness of the fiction encourages the audience to become caught up and find its own fears and impulses mirrored in those of the characters.


The inability to communicate is central to the play, as these characters are helpless to defend themselves because they cannot make themselves understood by each other. At the start, Meg and Petey go through the rhythm of a conversation without apparently understanding a word the other says, as they repeat questions, and make comments indicating no awareness of what the other has said. Another time, Lulu and Goldberg have a simultaneous conversation with Meg and McCann, in which everyone becomes incomprehensible. Words have become meaningless for these people—some kind of incomprehensible code they are unable or unwilling to break—and one wonders if they prefer it this way, as ignorance becomes a kind of bliss.


To further underline the desire to hide from reality, problems of identity abound in the play, beginning when Meg asks Petey to identify himself. We are also kept in the dark as to the real names, identities, and backgrounds of Goldberg and McCann. It is not that we are given no information, but that we are presented with conflicting stories—both answer to a variety of names, and McCann could be anything from a career criminal to a defrocked priest. Is Stanley a criminal or a concert pianist? Despite Meg’s working-class persona, she reminisces about growing up in wealth. All this uncertainty forces the audience to question the very notion of identity and how it is formed; what allows us to know who anyone truly is? Pinter plays with the effect that names, jobs, and backgrounds have on how we view people, suggesting the impossibility of ever really knowing someone else.


McCann and Goldberg may represent dangers present in the modern world, waiting to steal a person’s comfort, sanity, and even life. Stanley’s fear seems to be what finally silences him, and renders him virtually paralyzed. But all of these characters are afflicted with doubts and uncertainties, unsure of what the truth might be, or even if any exists. Meg seems unsure of her relationship to Stanley; one moment mothering him, the next trying to seduce him. Meanwhile, Stanley asserts a responsibility for Meg and Petey, which he apparently betrays by living with them and placing them in danger.


Goldberg and McCann are total contradictions, Goldberg with his lectures about traditional values, and McCann with his possible stint as priest, balanced  against the strong suggestion that they are gangsters. Goldberg also finds it difficult to complete his assertions, indicating an uncertainty over those beliefs, but also that they may be an insincere attempt to mask his evil purposes. With Goldberg representing Judaism, McCann Catholicism, Meg motherhood, and Stanley the arts, these characters suggest the way in which traditional values have failed modern society. Pinter offers nothing with which to replace these values, and all his play finally offers is an extended metaphor for the randomness, danger, and incomprehensibility of modern life; we are all of us stumbling in the dark as in a giant game of blind man’s buff. With luck we will fare better than Stanley, but there are no guarantees.




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